Hip-hop in its earliest incarnations was an experiential thing — not just because rappers and DJs had yet to secure the backing of major labels, but because their work depended on the texture and context that only a cramped nightclub or a sweaty multipurpose room could provide. Even as rap became a massive commercial force, it preserved the thrill of the impermanent: the sample chopped or flipped on the spot only to be nixed by the folks in legal affairs, the virtuosic freestyle that trails off into nothing. The ephemerality was the point. To step back from the scene and tie yourself to a particular, static critical analysis was to miss what might happen next.
But any major artistic movement deserves serious study. While rap songs quite literally allow for higher word counts than songs in other genres — and therefore facilitate the kind of autobiographical writing and introspection that other musicians might have to save for the memoir — their sociopolitical underpinnings, production histories, and contractual red tape are fascinating both at face value and as lenses onto American culture and commerce, a protest art that became hugely popular for those invested in maintaining the established economic order.
What follows is a list of 11 books on hip-hop that are essential for any fan of the genre, though many of them are just as gripping for someone who couldn’t pick Puff out of a lineup. If there’s an organizing theme to be found, it’s the understanding that hip-hop is an art form created in response to dire material conditions and political persecution — one that has the capacity to be militant in its effort to correct those injustices, but also to fill these pre-revolutionary days with style, checks that clear, and something to dance to.
If all of David Toop’s writing were excised from The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip Hop, the book would still be worth the exorbitant prices it fetches on auction sites thanks to the rare Patricia Bates photographs of early hip-hop figures included in its pages. What Toop — a prolific musician and writer with a tendency toward the experimental and obscure — does offer is a primer on rap that begins with the utterly rudimentary (rap is “rhythmic talking over a Funk beat,” he writes early on) before tracing its roots through other Black musical and narrative forms back to “the savannah belt of West Africa [where] this social pressure is embodied by the caste of musicians known as griots.” Academic to a fault though it may be, Rap Attack is a relentless, thorough attempt to canonize an emerging form in real time.
Another hybrid work of ethnomusicology and photography, It’s Not About a Salary shifts focus to the West Coast, where Brian “B+” Cross sees the scene as inextricable from L.A.’s political reality, which by 1993 had become as fraught as it had been since the 1965 Watts rebellion. Cross would go on to great renown as a photographer — he was behind the lens for such iconic album covers as Ras Kass’s Soul on Ice and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing … — but his work as a writer is incisive and unambiguously radical. The nine years separating Toop’s book from Cross’s might as well have been 90; Salary is largely comprised of interviews with artists like DJ Quik, Eazy E, Ice-T, and Nefertiti, each of whom treats hip-hop as its own fully realized ecosystem.
In the summer of 1993, a man named Ronald Ray Howard was sentenced to death in the killing of a Texas state trooper who had pulled him over for a broken headlight. During his trial, Howard’s lawyers had argued, unsuccessfully, that hip-hop had conditioned him to hate police officers; the oft-repeated, maybe apocryphal detail from the crime scene was the copy of 2Pacalypse Now that was supposedly playing in Howard’s tape deck. By the mid-’90s, cultural conservatives up to and including members of Congress were caricaturing hip-hop as proof of Black Americans’ villainy, its anger at police brutality cast as gross and trivial and indistinguishable from the most misogynistic novelty single an enterprising aide could find. In her landmark book from 1994, the New York–bred sociologist Tricia Rose untangles its righteous outrage from its problematic tics, placing the political fury in its proper context while holding the genre to account for its shortcomings with respect to sex and gender. Black Noise takes its subjects seriously, both politically and aesthetically, and stands as one of the most engaging examinations rap has ever received.
Though it only published 13 issues across its five years of existence, Ego Trip remains one of the most beloved and influential magazines in hip-hop history, not least because its skeleton staff included some staggeringly impressive names. Just after the periodical side shuttered, five of those luminaries collaborated on Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, which is perhaps the most persuasive argument, in or outside of rap, for list-making as a journalistic and critical endeavor. Irreverent but deeply informed, the book takes confident stabs at canonization (“Greatest Groups of All-Time,” “Greatest Emcees of All-Time”) but also gets far weirder and more specific: “10 Weak Debut Singles From Major Rap Performers,” “Prince Paul’s All-Time Favorite Hip-Hop Skits,” “Chuck D’s 5 Reasons Why Radio Sucks More Than Ever.” Those dispatches from legendary artists are paired with capsule histories of New York radio mix shows and New Orleans bounce music, close readings of liner notes, and hard-won advice for navigating the record industry.
Ladies First is the kind of book that, in lesser hands, could become trite at nearly any juncture. Queen Latifah’s 2000 memoir indulges the publishing industry’s reflex to treat real life as parable, every tragedy an opportunity to grow, regroup, and repackage hardship as tidy, aphoristic advice. Fortunately, the legendary Newark rapper is both a magnetic writer and has a life that actually rises to the level of myth. Ladies First projects a rare thing: confidence that is three-dimensional, forged through unfathomable loss, consistent rejections, and persistent scrutiny. As hip-hop passes the half-century mark and fans and critics reckon with the way women have been marginalized in its written histories, Latifah’s catalogue — like the worldview expressed in this book — is defiantly disinterested in outside approval.
Where, two decades prior, David Toop had taken a largely musicological approach to hip-hop, Jeff Chang spends most of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop examining the material conditions out of which hip-hop was born, its imperfect assimilation into the American mainstream, and the revolutionary capacity it retains. Initially hyper-focused in the South Bronx before widening its aperture to include gang truces and the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, along with the megacorporation-assisted globalization of hip-hop as an industry, Chang’s history is a rigorous but optimistic love letter to what could still be.
The unavoidable truth is that, even setting aside the Mobb Deep masterpieces and his illustrious solo career, My Infamous Life is the second-most iconic thing Prodigy ever wrote. The first, of course, is the blog he maintained in the late 2000s, the one that had lists like, “TRENDS PRODIGY HAS SET SINCE 1992 AND STILL IS SETTING IN 2008 AND BEYOND: #1 TATTOO’S ON MY CHEST, ARMS AND HAND SINCE I WAS 12 YEARS OLD; #2 RAPPING WORDS THAT DON’T ALWAYS RHYME.” But his remarkable memoir is typical of his outfit, equally engaging when recounting harrowing stories of the sickle-cell anemia that plagued P throughout his life, the prison-to-prison correspondence he had with Lil Wayne, or when he inspired Cam’ron to start wearing pink.
In many ways, the emotional core of The Big Payback, Dan Charnas’s exhaustive history of how hip-hop became a billion-dollar industry, is the story of a corporate failure: that of Macola Records, a comparatively tiny vinyl-pressing plant in Los Angeles that issued the debuts of many of that city’s formative rap stars. While the agreements for these pressings promised Macola a share of the profits, they were all done over handshakes; when the real money came knocking, Macola and its founder, Don McMillan, were cut out entirely. Across the rest of the book, no other executives — mostly stemming from the Def Jam family tree — would be so naïve. Charnas, who last year published Dilla Time, a biography of the late J Dilla, draws on his experience as a writer for The Source and employee at Profile Records and Rick Rubin’s American Recordings to render the often ugly truth about the parts of the rap business that never make it onto wax.
Julia Beverly’s encyclopedic biography of the late Pimp C reads, at times, like the best sort of data dump, a trove of gems from Chad Butler’s lips and the legions of awed artists and frustrated executives he left in his wake. But across its more than 700 pages, clear arcs do emerge: of a shy, sensitive kid who found himself on records; of a regional art movement disrespected and disregarded by hip-hop’s power centers; and even of an industrial town booming, busting, and booming again along with America’s crudest industry. Pimp C was one of the most inimitable forces in hip-hop history on both sides of the boards, and Beverly’s tome improbably captures the immensity of his life and career.
When he was barely 20 years old, Rakim was widely considered the most technically inventive MC in hip-hop; soon, he and Eric B. would become the first rap act to sign a million-dollar record contract. Yet he still felt like an outsider: caught between generations of artists, the city and his home on Long Island, the spiritual world and the corporeal. In Sweat the Technique, Rakim recounts his formative experiences in rap (like arguing with Marley Marl about whether he should be allowed to record while lounging on a couch), explaining the way he used to subdivide the pages in his notebook to make each syllable in every verse land perfectly, and finally shedding some light on one of the most tantalizing unrealized collaborations ever, his ill-fated deal with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment.
The well-intentioned people who talk about how “rap is poetry” are generally doing a disservice to both forms. But My Kaleidoscope, which includes the lyrics from nearly 70 songs by the Los Angeles underground legend Myka 9, is working with raw material so technically overwhelming that, on the page, it seems to take on an entirely different shape than it does on record. This will not surprise those who are familiar with the Freestyle Fellowship co-founder, whose acrobatic raps helped drive the avant-garde that flowed from the Good Life Cafe through Project Blowed and beyond. In addition to the lyrics — uniformly superb, many of them never before transcribed — there are original photographs by It’s Not About a Salary’s Brian Cross and an extensive oral history. As the platforms, like YouTube and DatPiff, that once housed whole schools of hip-hop continue to falter, and as much of the most innovative rap music remains unclearable for DSPs, books like My Kaleidoscope are invaluable addendums to the historical record.